Laos captivated me. After experiencing the impossibly chaotic streets of Bangkok, the sleepy streets of Luang Prabang in northern Laos took me by surprise. But this quiet lifestyle allowed me the opportunity to slow down and really take a look at the people and the culture, hopefully learning a lot along the way. When I think back on our time there though, there are certain words which define the experience for me personally.
1. Kind – Similar to the people of other Southeast Asian countries, the Laotians were incredibly kind throughout our stay. [Sentence edited for clarity] It’s part of Buddhist culture really to not be a prick, as I so indelicately put it. Instead they respect each other as individuals and do what they can to lend a helping hand. Novel concept, right? I best saw this one day while trying, in vain it would turn out, to find a certain museum. I had maps, which I’m really bad at reading typically, and a general sense of where to go. It was past noon though and Luang Prabang was experiencing one of its hottest weeks of the year which only hastened my frustration. That’s saying a lot for a region that makes a Finnish sauna seem chilly. Needless to say this oppressive heat and sticky humidity didn’t do a lot to put me in good spirits. I was even more cross when I was clearly lost after thirty minutes of wandering in a neighborhood I didn’t recognize and no clear way out other than to backtrack. That’s when a teen came up and offered to help. I’m jaded, so I always expect a hidden objective, which usually culminates in a visit to a rug or jewelry shop. But I was desperate so I accepted his help. And you know what, that’s all it was – help. He put me back on the main road and I was safely in my air-conditioned hotel room within minutes. Kindness matters, but in Laos it’s many times just part of daily life.
2. Proud – I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense, but Laotians are proud and they should be. The history of Laos hasn’t always been filled with puppy dogs and rainbows and it’s usually put them in the middle of larger turf battles. But in spite of this buffer status, they’ve developed a rich and unique culture that may incorporate some borrowed elements, but which is distinctly their own. I saw this in the myriad temples strewn across Luang Prabang like pieces on a chessboard. The city has more than sixty temples and is well known for this pious devotion. But it’s also a source of pride for the residents, who take great care in maintaining them and sharing them with obnoxious foreigners like myself. The pride wasn’t evident through any words spoken, but through a thousand unspoken acts found around town.
3. Delicious – I’ve said this many times, but food is arguably the most important part of the travel experience, well except for the actual traveling part I guess. The tastes and smells are incredibly strong memories and stay with us for a very long time. That’s why so many of us experiment at home with new dishes learned on a trip, to try to capture if only for a moment that perfect bliss of the travel experience. Laos has good food in spades and while it may not at first seem noteworthy, it most certainly is. Laos is poor and has been for a long time. The best food though is that which caters to the average worker and in Laos this manifests itself in a robust market culture where you can buy everything from grilled meats (mmm, meat on a stick) to bowls of broth, noodle, vegetables and meat. Sure, if you want a steak or something fancy you can find it in Luang Prabang, but why on earth would you?
4. Unknown – I decided to first visit Laos because several travel influencers rated it as their top ‘undiscovered’ tourist destination. By undiscovered I mean there aren’t coachloads of people armed with cameras stopping at McDonald’s for a snack before reboarding the hop-on-hop-off bus. There were tourists when I visited, but they weren’t your average traveler. There were a lot of backpackers, no doubt attracted by the allure of cheap living. It was this level of authenticity that perhaps appealed to me most. I didn’t feel as if I was witnessing a contrived, sterile representation of Laotian life. Instead, I was just a part of daily life in Laos. There’s a lot to be said for this and it’s a remarkable opportunity, if not an increasingly rare one. Even on a recent trip to remote destinations in Africa I was surrounded by scores of tourists. I hope Luang Prabang can stay this way, but it’ll be difficult. As Thailand becomes hyper-commercialized and too busy, travelers will start to eye new spots and Laos is the logical choice. In fact, just forget I said anything, don’t go there, leave it the way it is. Here, take a look at a baby camel to help you forget about the joy of traveling in Laos.
Have you been to Laos? What words defines it for you?